Julian Gerighty, creative director on The Crew, joined Ivory Tower after working his way up through Ubisoft's marketing departments. That's interesting because it's unusual, but also because he must instinctively bring a marketer's eye to his studio's creative output, and at first glance, The Crew is hardly a marketer's wet dream. If you don't look close, you'll fail to distinguish it from other games that have come before. In the bustle blare of E3 and Gamescom, The Crew struggled to win over an abundance of attention for its open-world multiplayer RPG car game.
Predictably, Ubisoft is now attacking The Crew from a fresh angle. After pushing back so hard on the term at E3 2013, Ivory Tower has even embraced the 'MMO' label given to it by a generous press, although The Crew is an MMO only in the same sense that Destiny is an MMO. Rather than joining a server, each player is a single online part, seamlessly paired behind the scenes with others in the same in-game area. At any time, a maximum of seven other players will race together in the same space.
The game’s credentials as an RPG are far more compelling, and this is where The Crew indicates its real potential to win a strong following. But of course it must have its own snappy term, and summoned with abominable incantations from the black pit of the marketing department comes the wincer ‘CarPG’. Don’t look at it, Marion.
Unlike other racing games, which focus on modification through winnings and a mechanic shop, The Crew superimposes the structure of an RPG over open-world racing. There are six different classes of car: stock, street, dirt, high performance, raid, and circuit. Next, players will undertake challenges and missions to earn parts or items for their car, just as they might in an RPG. It’s a structure that channels players down specific progression routes in a way other racers do not. Instead of experimenting and collecting multiple low-level cars, the game rewards players for levelling one or two car types almost exclusively. The player also gains perks as he or she levels, picking out talents such as overall better handling, overall better braking, or discounts on repairs. The coming together of racing and RPG a smart, unlikely match and it works here very well.
Less welcome is the fact that important or useful indicators, including the angle of upcoming corners in races, are locked behind progression gates. When a challenge is completed, a small menu pops up in the middle of the screen showing useful information on performance and rewards, but also totally obscuring the player’s view of the unpausable game world behind it. Charly Bourget, product manager at Ivory Tower, tells us that simple oversights like this will be addressed before the game is released.
To get a sense of the size of The Crew’s game world, Bourget showed us a presentation slide which plotted the entire maps of huge open-world games such as Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto V into small pockets of The Crew’s sprawling world. It’s eye-catching, but it’s also a little disingenuous – when the world is zipping past 200kmph, density and detail is hardly a priority. A more telling measurement is that it’ll take about an hour and a half to drive from the west coast to the east coast: very impressive indeed, but not to an order of magnitude that makes the mind boggle.
The world is peppered with activity markers that turn mundane locales into destinations worth seeking out. More compelling are random pop-up challenges that can be triggered with a single button while driving around. These include small skill tests for rewards, such as slaloming around markers on the road, or maintaining high speeds in busy traffic for as long as possible. These challenges each provide a small, entertaining distraction while on longer journeys, and can be rewarding activity to pursue in themselves. If The Crew is an MMO, this is the grind, but it’s grinding at breakneck speed in a beautifully-realised setting.
The story is hammy; something like an abandoned pilot for a Fast and the Furious TV series that got laughed out of audience testing. You play a suitably du jour hipster-cop who is going undercover to bring down a street racing gang from the inside. There’s a sassy love interest. Melodrama abounds. After one particularly contrived cut scene, an audible chuckle rippled through the attending press. Bourget breezily agreed that “it’s not Shakespeare”, and that it’s only intended to give the most skeletal of frameworks to the mission structure. Not every game needs to be high drama, but that fact alone shouldn’t excuse the apathetic slapping together of a narrative that’s as gripping as a chocolate mousse thrown at a wall.
There is still work to be done on The Crew. The game world is full of arresting vistas and its scale is unrivalled, but it currently feels a little empty and lacking in dynamism. The very idea of a "car MMO" is a powerful one, and it's probably for that reason rather than for its actual mechanics that the press first jammed Ivory Tower's car-shaped peg into that square genre hole. The Crew could still be something very precious, and time at least is still on Ivory Tower's side. The Crew will come out later this year on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.